Health Fears Prompt Crowdsourced Ocean Radioactivity Tracking Site

A new website by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) aims to collect ocean water samples from the public, along with donations to test them for radioactivity.

Workers in protective clothing and masks outside the Emergency Response Centre, the main control hub at the Fukushima Daiichi site. The building, which is heavily shielded from on-site radiation, was completed just a few months before the accident to act as a seismically stable control centre in case of earthquake. Image Credit: Gill Tudor / IAEA.

Workers in protective clothing and masks outside the Emergency Response Centre, the main control hub at the Fukushima Daiichi site. The building, which is heavily shielded from on-site radiation, was completed just a few months before the accident to act as a seismically stable control centre in case of earthquake. Image Credit: Gill Tudor / IAEA.

A new website by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) aims to collect ocean water samples from the public, along with donations to test them for radioactivity.

The website, called How Radioactive is Our Ocean?, is a response to fears over the radioactive plume from the 2011 Fukushima accident, which is predicted to reach the North American West Coast later this year, according to WHOI.

“Despite concerns, there is no U.S. government agency monitoring the spread of low levels of radiation from Fukushima along the West Coast and around the Hawaiian Islands—even though levels are expected to rise over coming years,” according to the website.

How serious are health concerns?

In April 2011, Wolfgang Weiss, chairman of the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) said that radiation from Fukushima would have no health effects. However, studies released in the years since predict small but non-zero numbers of additional cancer diagnoses and deaths due to Fukushima radiation.

One study suggests that health effects due to radiation from the Fukushima accident will be relatively minor, especially in North America. Published in 2012 in Energy & Environmental Science, the paper, “Worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident,” proposes an estimate of 130 cancer mortalities related to the accident worldwide, most of those occurring in Japan. (They estimated only three Fukushima-related cancer deaths in North America.)

“This radiological health effect compares with the ~600 non-radiological deaths already attributed to the evacuation following the accident,” said study authors John Ten Hoeve and Mark Jacobson.

The authors acknowledge some room for variability in their predictions. By altering some parameters, the estimate for additional cancer deaths can jump as high as 1,100 or as low as 15. Additionally, others suggest that the model Ten Hoeve and Jacobson used to predict the rate of new cancers, the linear-no-threshold (LNT) model, may give an overestimate of cancer deaths—which, if true, would mean the actual number of additional cancer deaths is below 130.

However, a paper later published in Energy & Environmental Science that uses an adjusted version of Ten Hoeve and Jacobson’s model puts the estimated number of Fukushima-related cancer mortalities at 600, rather than 130.

Ten Hoeve and Jacobson say their study does not take into account the plant workers at Fukushima in the months after the accident who experienced increased exposure to radiation. However, the authors say that “no acute radiation sickness or acute radiation effects have been reported thus far.”

The uncertainty about predicted health effects of the radiation may end up taking a toll of its own.

Reports about the 1986 Chernobyl accident suggest that psychological effects of nuclear accidents can have significant impact on the mental and physical health of people in affected areas, while studies (1, 2, 3) related to the 2011 Fukushima accident indicate that psychological effects are cropping up in nearby populations. One study suggests that the psychological effects (mainly anxiety and distress) are due in large part to uncertainty and fear about radiation doses, so reducing uncertainty—for example, by finding concrete numbers for levels of radioactivity—may alleviate some of these psychological effects.

Ken Buesseler, a scientist at WHOI and leader of the How Radioactive is Our Ocean? project, said in an interview with Earthzine that he suspects test results from water off the North American West Coast will bring good news. “The levels [of radioactivity] we expect … are lower than we think will have any impact on human health.”